The International Arts Professionals Summer School, Brussels 2012

Just back from a very enjoyable couple of days in Brussels – I was running a session with the participants and then chairing a learned panel for the International Arts Professionals Summer School, set up and brilliantly organised by Dr Roberta Comunian of Kent University and presented in partnership with ENCATC.

The theme of the Summer School was arts and cultural management and all the participants were practitioners from various parts of the world.  So the exchange of knowledge and experience proved to be both highly valuable and often deeply illuminating on all sides.  Three of the participants, for example, were Palestinian, two living in Palestine and one actually living and working in Israel.   For one of the Palestinians ,  Amal Shashtri, living and working for the Edward Said National Conservatory for Music in Nablus,  the journey to Brussels took two and a half days – by coach to Amman via three checkpoints (Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian, having to dismount and changes buses each time) and then fly to Istanbul and thence to Brussels.  The three of us spent a happy lunch hour (having accidently become separated temporarily from the rest of the group) in a Vietnamese restaurant talking about Palestine.  The difficulties under which they live and work are extraordinary.  And yet, when I asked why they don’t leave, they both looked at me with astonishment – ‘It’s our home!’ they said.  Amal is clearly in love with her job – she has been the Director in Nablus for nearly three years – and is simply passionate about her country, shrugging away much of the horrors and pain which we hear so much about – ‘ you just get used to it and live with it’ she said.  Both she and Rasha were keen to point out that we don’t hear much of the good that goes on, despite the daily fear and deprivations.   Rasha’s only been in her job as PR and project coordinator for a few months. She trained as a photo journalist and showed me some stunning photographs of landscapes that you would not have identified as Palestine in a million years.  They were somewhat bemused by the rather Eurocentric elements of the course but they both said the value that they had got from meeting 18 other practitioners from all over the world was incalculable.

Amongst the participants the Far East was well represented with culture professionals from Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong.  We even stretched as far as Australia with a real live wire called Kate Martin, although it was slightly cheating since she currently works in Edinburgh!  The New World was represented by Sarah Kimmerle who very usefully brought American attitudes and experience to the table.  There was a lovely moment of realisation for everyone, I think, when I was talking to them about identifying and meeting the needs of the customer.  I commented that many cultural professionals tend to focus on the needs of the clients, i.e. the people who will benefit from their work, and tend to overlook the needs of the customer, i.e. the people actually paying for the work, such as funders.  Sarah commented that, in the States, the opposite tends to happen: the focus is so much on the customer that the client needs tend to get forgotten!  A useful lesson for us all.  I think all the rest were European but it was, as always, fascinating to see how wide a spectrum of attitudes and approaches that single word encompasses!  I was sorry that there were no Africans participating but am sure that will change in the future.   With the growth of recognition of the creative and cultural sectors in many African countries these days, it is both inevitable and essential that they join these networks and participate.

As Riika pointed out in her tweet after the session, their time with me was “intensive and exhaustive…… but awesome”.  They had already been put in groups to develop ideas so they took to the innovation process as ducks to water – as always, the real value of these sessions is the learning that goes on between them all as they work together to develop concepts and ideas and – the afternoon turned into a stimulating voyage of discovery.

The next day, as the final session, I chaired an international panel of distinguished academics to discuss the response to the crisis in culture and looking at new models of governance.  There was some really interesting input, especially from Gerald Lidstone of Goldsmith’s, and Fabio Donato who, as an Italian economist, made the heart stirring observation that “Culture is the driver of our values and behaviours”.  There’s a thought for our times!  The common theme was a call for a strategic approach to the financial crisis and its consequent impact on the arts and culture.  Everywhere there seems to be band-aids of one kind or another being applied:  until someone is brave enough to take the long view, we continue to lurch from crisis to crisis and never share the learning.  It was a bit of a downbeat ending to what had been an uplifting week but we must just put our faith in these future arts and culture professionals to lead us to a new Nirvana – if this bunch is anything to go by, the arts of the future are in good hands!

Anamaria Wills                anamariacida (Twitter)                   (Facebook)

July 2012